the day we sang to cancer, fuck you

I sing often. By myself. In the car with the windows rolled down. While I cook when I’m the only one home. I can sing in a group, silly camp songs that have little or no melody and are mostly screamy-shouty-silly. And sometimes when in a large group around a campfire, but only when there’s lots of others to carry the tune and I can mumble along under my breath. And that is it. Never in public. And so when we talked about me and some cancer buddies singing the chorus of the cancer-song I wrote with my friend Kate, I was of course really worried about my never-in-public singing voice.

Except today, I sang loudly and you could hear me and it was awesome.  Today we recorded the song. It was complicated and generative and full of emotion and awesome. We left Vancouver early, and pulled up to a house by a creek out in Coquitlam. In the basement recording studio they were setting up drums. Bit by bit, they worked through each line, practicing. The guys on the drums and bass, Kate on her guitar and singing, me in total disbelief that these people were actually recording this story in music, giving voice to my experience, listening and carefully crafting sound so it can be shared. I mean seriously- when does that happen?

On our way over, we discussed the way some folks raised their eyebrows about the swearing in the song. “It takes away from the message,” they explained, “It will turn people off.” Others worried we might offend health care providers with the chorus, which goes “And they took my left tit away like they didn’t even give a shit/and I’m the brink of a fit of rage ’cause all I’m surrounded with is breast cancer pink.” You know what I think? I think people are responding to the voicing of breast cancer as angry more than the expletives or even the “they didn’t give a shit.” I think it’s uncomfortable because its too close to the skin. It cuts too close to the heart. It’s too painful to think about. And so people react.

It certainly is my experience that they didn’t give a shit- literally, they cannot, because it’s not their breast immobilized and cut off. It’s not their breast that becomes hospital trash. They didn’t save the majority of my breast, the parts they didn’t use for the pathology. They trashed it. A cancer-buddy informed me today of a scandal in which hospital trash was used to generate heat and air conditioning for Californian homes. I could maybe get on board with heat. But air conditioning? No. Even if the doc has the best bedside manner ever and even though I certainly feel so cared for by them- they still cut into my body and removed a part of me and it’s gone forever, and probably a lot of it got thrown in the trash, and maybe its in a landfill next to used computer screens and broken wine bottles, and maybe there’s seagulls eating it, and maybe it is being burned to heat some Northern Californian home. That is not caring.That is participating in a system that doesn’t care, and even if you’re participating because you want to cure breast cancer, its still horribly pathologizing and its still not giving a shit. If it was testicles we were talking about, they would have found a way to save them by now that actually works, not like the half-assed attempts at lumpectomies that result in lower survival rates among young women, and that provide no comfort at all, especially if you’re under 40 and have no way to access any kind of reliable screening. Giving a shit would be answering my question when I ask how much longer until they get the needle out of my breast, and giving a shit would be offering me a screening MRI because my cancer was undetectable without me having to ask. Giving a shit is almost impossible in the system.
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Anytime any of us says anything negative about our doctors, or anything that’s not “they’re amazing they saved my life” everyone gets up in arms. There’s such a need to glorify doctors, and patients are supposed to be grateful. It’s gendered. An angry man would be more appropriate. I should instead be grateful they saved my nipple, grateful they reconstructed a lump that kind of matches the other half of my chest, grateful grateful grateful. I am of course grateful to be alive, but the purpose of the song isn’t to make those doctors feel OK about their work. Their paychecks should take care of that. The song is supposed to give voice to something else, someone else. There’s not words for cancer-trauma, it is especially word-less, especially unable to be metabolized in language, especially deserving of a giant fuck you. When I asked a fellow young breast cancer buddy if the swearing was OK, ending the question by explaining that some people had reservations, she retorted, “These people with reservations have their left tit intact? Then they get no say. It’s totally appropriate.” Obviously. The song is supposed to shock you into rethinking your assumptions about breast cancer, its supposed to queer this exhausting happy-happy narrative, its supposed to make our experience visible.
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And yet something felt weird, a little raw, kind of embarrassing as we sat together in the dark basement studio, and the sounds came together in the most awesome of ways. They appreciated the words, these musician guys, I think. But they were guys, they haven’t had breast cancer- or any cancer- and I doubt they’d call themselves feminists. We slipped upstairs for some tea. Kate felt it too, acknowledging the challenges in doing feminist work in a studio full of men. The breast cancer narrative is so entrenched and so gendered. It’s hard to queer that pink-ribbon story, hard to weave a breast cancer experience defined by anger and frustration into public discourse. I took great comfort knowing Kate felt that too, and that she’s been doing this kind of queer and feminist work for a long time, and sometimes it’s hard, but it’s still insanely critical, so important, good and hard work. You gotta look up to someone who rocks out like that- both literally and metaphorically- so hard. And so we took a few breaks. She’s been close enough to breast cancer that she can grasp the horror, see through the bullshit, and laugh at the right moments. Being able to both grasp the horror and laugh at it is both totally unique and incredibly important.

And when it was time, us cancer girls gathered around the microphone, and tentatively at first, we sang the chorus. And then again. And then again. And then again. Until we sang it so many times there was no more tentative, there was just lyrics on a page and a fuck you cancer feeling and us singing. It was awesome. And I sang in public. Or public-ish, at least.

It was all of the emotions, today in the studio. I was excited to be part of the process, I was nervous to sing, I was intimidated by these amazing musicians, I was in awe of the music, I was sad about the cancer, I was giddy to hear my story sung, I was pissed off about patriarchal capitalism, I was reflective about this whole long year, I was grateful to have such creative-earth-shaking friends. As the music and the feelings filled the basement studio I cried because it was awkward and the boys didn’t get it; I cried because cancer sucks so hard; I cried because when I heard all of our voices together- my voice and Kate’s voice and Kara’s and Kristina’s voices in the second to last chorus- it sounded like an entire cancer-chorus and I felt so not alone; I cried because it’s such an incredible thing to have this story-song and I’m so intensely grateful to Kate and the boy musicians and Kristina and Kara for making it happen.

We did it. It was awesome. You will hear it soon. I love it. I will keep listening, and the song will continue to be a generative source of healing, comfort, and awesome. Here are the four of us, after singing our hearts out in the chorus. It was incredible, and it was healing, comforting, and awesome. Oh, and we’re fucking pissed off about breast cancer.

pissed off

Mine Alone

I wish we could sit together, and have a cup of tea, and talk about breast cancer. And feminism, and race, and diaspora, and narrative, and academia, and the world. I think we could talk about all of those things, through the lens of breast cancer. After all, she wrote The Cancer Journals- the first (as far as I know) chronicle of breast cancer that critically interrogates the personal, political, embodied experience of cancer, in a way that only Audre Lorde can. Her work has mattered to me for a long time, since a prof assigned Sister Outsider in a freshman level course I took at Pitzer College, yet her Cancer Journals has struck a chord inside me unlike her other work. I have read and re-read passages, I have asked what treatments she did and thought of copying her, I have spent hours considering my surgery decisions in relation to her beautiful, political, writing about how breast reconstruction is a symptom of greater, uglier social ill surrounding the female body as an object of attraction, about how we need to be able to recognize each other, about how breast reconstruction let’s everyone live in la-la-no-cancer-land. In the context of cancer (but also always in the context of lesbian/black/feminist/mother/poet), she wrote: My silence had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. I wonder what she would have made of the world of blogging, of the proliferation of cancer blogs and dedicated cancer twitter chats and facebook announcements. Gosh, we need her. I am angry at breast cancer for taking her. And I am angry that decades ago- decades ago!- before I was even halfway through elementary school,  she called for a cancer revolution, she called for bodies to be dumped on the steps of what matters, she called for organizing— and you know what? It hasn’t happened. Because here I am, twenty two years after her death, and I had breast cancer, and her words still ring true. Not much has changed.

Tonight, I watched a film about part of her life– Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years. We sat together in the Vancity Theatre. I was buzzing, because earlier today we met with our fertility team and surrogate, and it looks like everything is going to move forward with crazy-baby-making involving our embryo in someone else’s body. It was the first time I saw lots of UBC folks since my diss defense, and there were many “Oh, you look so well!” “Oh, your hair is so long and looks so good!” and “So your health is OK, now, right?” comments. I do look well, my hair is (relatively) long, and since I used to have cancer, well, anything looks good in comparison, right? There’s such a fixation, I’m always reminded in these contexts, on my being healthy. There is no space for me to say I’m not healthy. And of course, I am healthy, and that’s awesome. However, I feel always compelled to blurt out, “But with breast cancer, no one can ever know. There’s no way to monitor.” It just feels so pervasively like, you must be ok and if you’re not I can’t hear about it/don’t want to know. Especially this month, in the wildly inappropriate pink celebration, I have to refuse the “but you’re OK now, right?” Because, and if only because, who ever knows? And also, not everyone is OK, and that is especially the case in the more aggressive breast cancers that affect younger people. But mostly, what if I stopped being OK? It’s as though there’s no room for me to qualify my health, and not even the tiniest nod to the insane amount of damage wrecked on my body, mind, and soul. I suppose I’m so bothered because it leaves me no choice to respond but with, “Yes, I’m OK.” Instead, why won’t they just ask how I am? Why can’t they let me answer? I wouldn’t spill my guts to most of these folks anyway, but then they could actually witness my statement that I’m OK (or that I’m not), instead of defining my experience for me and making me wish I could disappear into the ground. This is like human interaction 101: Empathy. Even Brene Brown said so. 

I loved the movie. I was entranced. I was hopeful- listening to this inspiring feminist. I love the way Audre Lorde speaks, the slowness of her words, the carefulness in her speech, the way she uses her eyes to really get right at the heart strings, to produce feeling and wonder and hope in only a few words. What a gift that her words are recorded anywhere. I was in absolute wonder. She is awesome. But then they started down the cancer route. It was like a splinter underneath my fingernail, wiggling around in there. First the doctor on camera said she had survived longer (her breast cancer was metastatic) because she was “special.” Ok look, she was special. But so is everyone else, and I bet she’d be the first to argue that, and then maybe she’d argue for just health care practices (she went to Berlin to access alternative health care). I loved every second she was on screen, but these kinds of moments left a metallic taste in my mouth, the feeling that it just wasn’t represented as carefully as it could have been, the feeling that her cancer words were bruised and misunderstood.

Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I am over-reacting because I over-react with any kind big-screen cancer representation. Maybe it’s still to raw. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll always react. But all I wanted to do was book it, as soon as that screening came to a close, and talk with my cancer-buddies, who I desperately wished I had dragged with me to the screening. And as I drove home, I realized that the kind of profound misunderstanding I felt after the film, as more questions of “But you’re OK, now, right?” peppered the small talk is mine alone. And so in solitude, I drove across the bridge, and it was silent, and it felt right, and the air felt heavy with my thoughts and my anger at cancer having stolen Audre from the world, and my rage that nothing has changed, and my sadness that I can’t have a cup of tea with her.

And then I found myself in Sammy’s arms, and he reminded me that today is a day to celebrate. After all, before I went to the film we talked hospitals and birth weights and ferry rides and midwives with our surrogate over lattes after we all signed endless paperwork at the fertility clinic. It felt good, and we all were giggling with excitement, and I can’t believe it’s actually happening. And it’s pretty freakin’ awesome to figure out how to do something you wanted really bad, especially when you thought it had become impossible. Today, we made real gains on scaling up the side of an im/possible cliff. For months, all I could think of was the cancer killing me. Really. I was certain the cancer would kill me. But my certainty has given way to something else, and now I’m only certain we can have what I thought was impossible. Im/possible. What a hopeful slash.

And so we did. Cookies and tea. About the best kind of celebrating as far as I am concerned. Cheers, we said, because we passed the phsych screening test to proceed with surrogacy. Cheers, because we think we’ve found the right woman to carry our baby. Cheers, because the doctor was hopeful and helpful. Cheers, because we can still fight for what we want, even if its not how we envisioned it, because we want it bad enough to be creative and silly and stubborn in our pursuit. Cheers, even though there is darkness, even though there is sadness. Cheers, because the darkness’ twin is light, and cheers, because they always exist together, balancing and sometimes, producing a grounded hope. Grounded hope.

Mine alone is the feeling of knowing that Audre Lorde film from a white/cancer/feminist perspective. That’s both terrifying- mine, alone?- and liberating- how many multi-faceted, creative, surprising interpretations were there? What would happen if we could all listen to each other reflect on the lifework of this ground-shaking feminist/lesbian/poet/black woman? I wish we could sit with tea, I wish I could listen to her. But instead I have her writing, her texts, her poetry. And you bet I’ll be reading again, soon. And mine alone will be the feeling in the bottom of my stomach, when I feel her stories, when I know the cancer stories from the inside out, when I hear them reflected by my cancer buddies, when I hear my own cancer stories echoing hers, when I wonder why nothing feels like it’s changed, except that now breast cancer is dripping in pink ribbons. Mine, alone. A power to claim, that is, indeed. It is most certainly a way of knowing that is critical, and it is mine.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde

I thought it was The Onion

When I saw this picture, it felt unreal. It felt surreal. It felt impossible. This picture popped up all over Facebook on the one year

10383718_10152714513382708_868238968349762656_oanniversary of my very first lumpectomy, the lumpectomy that was for a lump that had only a teeny, tiny, itty bitty, percent chance of being cancer. Ha. This picture doesn’t even seem real. It seems like The Onion. Doesn’t it seem just totally impossible? I think the critique of pinktober, of breast cancer pink, of the horrible capitalist monopoly surrounding breast cancer is pretty accessible, totally public, and mostly part of general knowledge. Like you’re a person in the world, you’ve probably heard the critiques. If you haven’t, please start here, and don’t stop reading until you’ve also watched Pink Ribbons Inc. And then commiserate with me about how insanely ridiculous it is for Komen to partner with a freaking FRACKING company. I mean come on, next to pink capitalist crap, fracking is another major issue that’s gotten a ton of publicity lately and that is basically embodies the evil of all capitalist humanity. It is surreal, unreal, unbelievable, impossible.

You know what else is surreal, unreal, unbelievable, and impossible? You know what else belongs on The Onion, not on my body? This fake, no-feeling, rigid excuse they call a fake breast that people herald for it’s perkiness and perfectness. A few weeks ago, some folks from Callanish helped the Art Therapist Who Presides Over Feathers and Sand and Acrylics make me a new breast cast, one that captured this thing on my chest, as it is now. And today I stared at the sculpture that had been sitting behind a dark blue curtain, waiting for me. I looked it straight at it, that replica of my chest in paper machet, and was stunned into total disbelief. Only for a moment, I could recognize my own body as actually having been through cancer. I could only barely believe it for a second. For one second, I could actually believe I had cancer, I could I actually know my body was forever and totally changed. It felt real and impossible, like I was seeing double, like my body was a mirage from the inside out, like I couldn’t fit into myself. They’re connected though, the old breast and the new one. The old breast is off in the land for breasts who died too soon, with all the other mastectomied breasts. But my heart is still pumping blood through the skin. And maybe there’s a connection. Maybe in the mirage, the double vision, the not-fitting, maybe they can talk to each other, be together, become together. Maybe the body accepts and loves the space that once was, the space that kept the cancer inside and away from the rest of my body, the space that sacraficed itself so I could be well. Maybe. It feels weird, but maybe a little less like it could be in The Onion.

And then I went to Blenz Coffee, and they served me a latte in the most awful hot pink cup with a horrible hot pink top and I lost my coffee craving. Another young adult with another kind of cancer recently told me that they felt jealous breast cancer got so much attention. But you know what’s weird about that attention? It’s intensely focused on making my actual breast cancer experience, you know, the experience I had while I had breast cancer, totally invisible. There’s signs all over about a “future without breast cancer,” which is great and all, but the only outcry about fracking funding cancer research is on facebook. It’s so ironic. And then of course, there’s the endless signage about how to avoid breast cancer, passed out on hot pink notecards at the grocery store and hanging around tin cans collecting change at the bank, signage that imagined I am not there. Signage that clearly states instructions for not getting breast cancer: lift weights, eat salad, don’t get wasted every night, stay skinny. Signage that says nothing about fracking. Signage that totally denies my body, denies my experience, denies that I did all those things and still got cancer, denies that I even exist. Signage that speaks to everyone else but those of us afflicted with breast cancer, during breast cancer month. Signage that looks right past me. Signage that makes me invisible. And signage that writes me out of reality, writes some warped version of history without my story, writes a world that has amnesia, a writes a world in which there are fracking drills for breast cancer even though fracking causes breast cancer. And that is why I hate all this pink stuff so much. Sure, it’s political. But it’s also horrendous and so unnerving to walk through the world during a month dedicated to the illness that invaded my body and feel so totally and completely invisible, impossible, and ignored by the “awareness” celebration for the illness that invaded my body. I am both everything and nothing, in relation to the breast cancer awareness month. It’s f*cked.

Breast cancer “awareness” is f*cked. We need a cure: we ALREADY ARE aware. We need people to know what it feels like to be in two bodies, to be disenchanted with the way your body takes shape, to wonder what if. We need people to see double, to feel triple, to move big. Tonight one of my besties A photo-3dropped by on her bike. She peed, and she asked what I had written on the mirror in lipstick. She asked if it said I AM OK. I was taken aback. It was merely a reminder to take my tamoxifen, and I’d scribbled TAMOX on the mirror behind which I keep my face cream and toothpaste. But things are not always as they seem. There’s always a double meaning. Pink ribbons make me- a breast cancer survivor/patient/something- feel invisible. Breasts beneath shirts may be merely plastic ridges filled with saline. TAMOX might actually mean I AM OK. And TAMOX meaning I AM OK might be really hopeful. Can you see it? Can you see how it could mean either TAMOX or I AM OK? Sometimes, nothing is as it seems. That is today, that is tonight, that is Pinktober, that is cancer.The breast isn’t as it seems, the cancer isn’t as it ever seemed, the casts are not as I see them in my mind, the lipstick doesn’t read to her as it does to me. That is today, that is tonight, that is Pinktober, that is cancer. I love that she didn’t see TAMOX. I love that she saw I AM OK.

You know what feels really good, like f*ck you pink everywhere, f*ck you fracking, f*ck you people who write me out of public discourse, f*ck you cancer? The song. Kate’s song. On repeat. Adnauseum. All the time. So that’s why I can’t hear the phone or the doorbell or the FB ping you sent. I’ll give you a free preview. The chorus goes: Cause they took my left tit away/Like they didn’t even give a shit/And I’m on the brink of a fit of rage/Because all I’m surrounded with is breast cancer pink. When the world doesn’t have what’s good enough for us, sometimes we have to make it. Or our friends do. We have to make the music that will heal our souls and tell the stories that no one else is telling. Because clearly, we do exist. Brightly, wildly, we exist.

the worst part

I got excited.

I thought we could have a baby, and soon. I was imagining strollers and waking up in the middle of the night and that tiny-baby smell. I started thinking about how maybe things would work out, maybe the cancer hadn’t derailed all the baby-making plans entirely. I got ahead of myself. It’s important to be measured and careful in thinking about having a baby via surrogacy, because there are so many things that could go awry. Things could get out of hand because it’s such a profoundly weird thing to contemplate for all parties involved, because it requires such massive amounts of paperwork and documentation. Thing is, I probably wouldn’t use “measured” or “careful” to describe my personality. Certainly I am organized and efficient and I have my sh*t together, but I don’t like to wait. I like to run with the wind with all abandon and move quickly and jump into new situations with both feet at once. Of course, you can’t exactly run with the wind when you’re asking someone else to carry your baby and there are so many hearts and souls and bodies involved, and someone could get hurt.

This is the worst part of cancer. The fertility derailment is the worst part of cancer, I mean.

There are less hearts involved if you hire a surrogate though an agency, but that feels creepy-crawly, it feels like baby-buying and it feels like something I want to shrug off, though the possibility lingers. And it is $30,000. That is the easier route, and also the totally unaffordable route, but it’s clear to me why some people choose that route, why they don’t want to risk heartbreak, why they don’t want to get family or friends involved, why they have fundraisers and sell heirlooms to pay a stranger to carry their baby. I get it. I also get that this is not an option available to most young adults who have had cancer, for financial reasons.

Sometimes I think I should just go off my estrogen blocker and get pregnant myself, and I will begin my research on this option in earnest, tonight. The gist of it is that my cancer responds to estrogen, and the estrogen-blocker I take every night would be potentially harmful to a fetus. I take this estrogen-blocker to prevent a recurrence: even though I’m cancer free right now, this drug makes a serious dent in the possibility that my cancer recurs. It’s interesting, because the estrogen-blocker (tamoxifen) used to be used as a fertility drug, until too many babies were born with birth defects.

And so I’m left in a quandry: wait another year, until the oncologist semi-approves of me going off the drug and get pregnant myself as it appears I’m still fertile; get pregnant now, anyway, because I cannot wait even if it means going off the estrogen-blocker; or muddle my way through surrogacy and search for someone who might be in a place in their life to carry a child that is not their own, now. There are no good options. It is the worst part of cancer.

What’s a girl aching to have a baby to do? Certainly, I wish we hadn’t waited until now. I wish we hadn’t listened to the people who said we should wait till after the Ph.D., I wish we hadn’t talked ourselves into the sensibility of waiting, I wish-I wish-I wish, but as we all know from trying to wish cancer away, wishing falls flat in the face of reality. I want a baby. I think we would be great parents. Now’s as good a time as any, and I so badly want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby. I want a baby.

Someone wise told me once that grief is the space we reside in when we refuse to accept life as it is. And perhaps they were right. I cannot accept that we can’t have a baby, I don’t even know if I can accept we can’t have a baby, now. And so I put this out to the universe, not expecting a response but in grave need of guidance: What do we do now? Do I go off the meds, and get pregnant? Do I search high and low for a surrogate? Will one appear in my life, or is someone already in my life ready and waiting, because the universe knows how much we want a baby? Do I decide to wait until my oncologist grants semi-approval? Do I forget the whole baby-making endeavor entirely and focus on writing an academic book?

Ha. As if I could forget. Anyone who knows me knows how very stubborn and determined I am. Watch me make this happen. Somehow.

So community of mine, spread the word. We’re looking for an answer here, in the form of research about very young women and tamoxifen and pregnancy, or in the form of contacts and ideas and innovation, or in the form of support and love and care. So community of mine, where do we go from here?

the head, the heart

“It was worse for me, than the cancer itself.” When I heard those words, I sighed a big, giant sigh of relief. On the other end of the phone line was a woman telling me about how cancer stole her fertility. It was worse, she told me, than the the cancer itself. I thought I was the only one. I wasn’t. And even better, she’s through. Her depleted ovarian function and out-of-commission uterus was worse than the cancer itself, but she got her baby anyway, and she’s expecting a second one soon, a second baby squirming in the uterus of another woman until it’s time for her to hold that baby in her arms. She spoke with wisdom and calm, of the turmoil and of the resolution, and of the way things happen in the end, just as they should. I was relieved.

I always knew we’d have children, it was only a question of when. We were waiting until I was through the PhD, until I had a tenure track position, until we were solidly situated in a city we would expect to call home for a long, long time. That was the way we organized time, how we thought about our lives, how we organized events on a timeline, one after the other. But we’re not on that path anymore. We have no timeline. The organization is amuck. And who knows where we will be in a year, in two, in ten. And more importantly, who cares?

With a cancer diagnosis and many months of treatment under our belt, the way I think of time is entirely different. There isn’t a ton of it, and it’s never certain. There’s always an unknown, a question, a not-knowing. Things could change in a moment, and radically so, or they can march on in the mundane, so mundane that it’s boring. And we can never know. There is no vision, no mirage, no whisper of what the future holds- simply, we cannot know. That’s not hopeless. In fact, it could be just the opposite. It is both hopeless and hopeful, it is impossible and settling. We cannot know, we don’t know what will come. And so planning things like babies and careers is both exciting and pointless. It is thrilling to think ahead and utterly without reason.

Yet part of me is still stuck in the rut of planning, obsessed in the security of what should be, what could be, what is, what was, what I know is impossible. That part of me is my head, telling me we should be practical and watchful, waitful and hopeful, telling me a baby should wait until I have an office on a university campus and something to profess over. But the rest of me, the heart beneath my fake boob that is feeling the world, begs to differ. The rest of me shakes her head at  waiting, at willful planning, knowing that it is useless, knowing that following the heart is a path more studded with jewels than the journey the head wants to take.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a family member I trust deeply who wants to carry our baby, in spite of the warnings and risks that made me raise my eyebrows at the fertility clinic. It just seems so intentional, and it is intentional, and intentionality lights the fire of planning, of details of spreadsheets and worry. If she becomes pregnant with one of our embryos, it is intentional. There are so many costs, so many details, so much coordination to be ironed out. It’s not as though we went off of birth control and let what happen will: it’s the willful, intentional, hopeful act of implanting an embryo. It’s way more intentional than sex without birth control.

The intentionality is hopeful and heavy, and brings to bear questions that make me wonder what will happen, if we don’t have enough money? Will it be insane to start a job with a newborn? What will happen if I don’t get an academic job? Is it a bad time? Have we waited long enough to ward off cancer recurrence? Is this smart? Of course, it is my head asking away with questions, when I know that we will be OK, that poor people and wealthy people and stupid people and weird people have babies who are, for the most part, OK, all the time. Besides, my mother assures me lots of people move and get jobs with babies. Thanks, mom, I didn’t know that.

My heart laughs. Who cares if I’m on the job market? Why wait? Haven’t I learned anything from cancer? Isn’t it blatantly obvious, now, that waiting for something you want badly is without reason, that money is the way capitalism chokes the life out of beautiful people, that if its time, its time and the rest will follow?

And my head intervenes. But you’re on the PhD job market. But you have visa costs. But you don’t know where you’ll be in a year. Yes, my heart responds, but you do know. You will be home, somewhere in the world, with Sammy and Benito and Lulu, and you will continue to do something you love, as you always have, and there will be yoga classes and salsas simmering on the stove and friends who drop in to say hello. So in fact I do know where we will be in a year, we just don’t know the specific details I obsess over. But we do know something.

And so? The head? The heart? Who gets to say when we get to implant an embryo into our dear, dear surrogate?

the beginning of the cancerversaries

On August 28, 2013, I had an ultrasound. The tech was so unimpressed with the lump that photo (1)she wouldn’t even invite the radiologist in. She did, though go out and speak to him, at which point I snapped this picture. For the next many weeks, I obsessed over this photo. I compared it to photos of cancer, of fibroadenoma, of benign lump in young women with the help of Dr. Google and her cousin, Dr. Google Scholar. I sent it to people who I deemed to have excellent googling skills-you know who you are- and we compared notes.

A few days ago, it was August 28, 2014. The day that marked the one year anniversary of the beginning of this massive mess, the one year point from when this picture took up residence in my phone and in that place in my brain in charge of anxious googling. photo (2)This time, though, it was different. On the 2014 occasion of August 28th, there were no ultrasounds. There was a phone call about a post-doc, and an art-night with a palette full of acrylics. Sammy made boat paintings, I started working again on the famed breast casts, though I left the “nice” one untouched. What a difference 365 days makes, and yet, what not a difference.

Still, images of breasts that bear only a passing relation to what you see underneath a sweater dominate the visuals. Images, and imaginings, of what is inside have morphed from the technological rendition of cells beneath my skin to the artistic rendition that so many have molded together in memory of what once was. Neither the lump in the ultra sound nor the left breast memorialized in the breast cast remain in the world. They are but mere traces.

On the left breast, I glued words from pathology reports, from medical notes, from surgery directions. On the right, I glued lines from random pages of my dissertation, but you bet I chose which lines. And then came the heart. Pumping blood, veins pulsing, over top, even though, in spite of the medical jargon, the hospital terror, the doctors’ reign. It’s not done yet, and neither is this season of cancerverseries. The calendar is filled with cancerversaries between now and the end of the year: the first biopsy, the first lumpectomy, the waiting, the diagnosis, the fertility, the first chemo….

And I, smart woman that I am, timed it so well. In case I should ever forget about cancer, we’re on the cusp of Pinktober, the breast cancer month, and the decorations are already being hung. They won’t let me forget! People are asking about the CIBC Run For The Cure, I am rolling my eyes about the number of breast cancer flags bordering the Cambie Street Bridge, and the bank employees have all donned little pink ribbons next to their name-tags. More on that, soon. For now, I should make some coffee and hunker down with my job letter, and the color-coded excel document of jobs and post-docs and opportunities and to-do lists. Maybe the academic job market will let me forget.

chasing life: sex, gender, cancer

Lately, I’ve been following abcSpark’s new show, Chasing Life. It’s about a young woman diagnosed with Leukemia at 24. It’s about her experience: what’s happening, who she tells, how her family and friends handles her illness- in both awesome ways and shitty ways, the cancer-friends she makes, the insane complications and heartbreaking moments. It’s got its fair share of problems I could dissect as someone committed to a feminist analysis of media texts…. but as another young adult with cancer, I love it. They get a lot of things right- the anxiety about telling, the over-caring and the under-caring, the fertility preservation issues, the total crap that chemo is, the lifelines that cancer-friends become even though you’ve known them for such a short period of time, the weird and hopeful naturopathic treatments.

One of my very own friends who has really ridden the cancer roller coaster with me, someone who has come to almost as many appointments as Sammy, who has heard the good, gross, and horrific, who has shown up always even though it was hard, has been watching Chasing Life alongside me. I did have to suppress the familiar feelings of critical engagement when I first saw this scene, but I did suppress them, if only so I could stay engrossed in the story, until that very own friend of mine who’s ridden the cancer roller coaster with me brought it up again.

The scene is this: In episode 8, the group of cancer-friends get together. One of the young women- one portrayed as always very sweet, with a scarf on her (presumably) bald head, is about to live out one of her life long dreams. The cancer-friends gather in a strip-bar. And suddenly, we see this always-sweet-always-scarf girl on stage, wearing a fabulous and luxurious, long, blonde wig. She’s pole-dancing. She’s taking it off. Because we know she has cancer and is so sweet (and presumably innocent because she’s sick) her pole-dancing is pretty much absolutely adorable, her friends are thrilled for her, and this one rich, white-boy cancer-friend who supposedly makes all his cancer-friends’ dreams come true with financial gifts (he paid for the main characters’ fertility treatments, anonymously, and took another cancer-friend on a trip he’d always wanted to go on pre-death) shines as the humble but sweet and so generous star- he arranged  this opportunity for the sweet cancer friend to pole-dance. And then Ms. Stripping/Pole-dancing does the thing that makes us love her even more: she whips off her wig to cheers of “Take it all off!!” You can watch it here on Youtube- it starts at minute 18. 

OK. So my first thought, when I watched this scene, was- YES SHE IS SEXY. YES SHE CAN BE SEXY WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. YES SHE WANTS TO BE SEXY WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. I was happy to see a representation of cancer as normatively sexy, and excited to talk to my cancer-friends about how cancer = not sexy, and there was this Chasing Life moment to talk all about sexy, cancer, gender, desire. So what does it mean for a young woman with cancer to want to be looked at, to want to place herself in a situation where others see her as sexy, to dare others to see her as a sexual being? What does it mean to be able to acknowledge those kinds of desires? I mean so many people have them and ignore them, and here we have a media representation of a sick girl throwing her sexuality in your face in a normative way, in a way we are accustomed to seeing healthy, hot, hyper-sexualized young women?

My dear appointment-attending-always-showing-up-even-when-it-was-hard friend, though, she called me and was horrified at how this young woman could only be tentatively sexy because she’s the “godly” and nun-like character, the one who could do no wrong- she does embody the typical good-girl persona, the one who could never do any wrong. There is a serious problem in our world, where young women’s sexuality is persistently denied, framed as dangerous, racialized, and otherized. We police girls and young womens’ bodies with school dress codes, decisions about what’s “appropriate,” and regulations and standards that dictate how young women should move, who can be sexual, how whiteness and upper-class-ness correlate to a latent but private sexuality. This scene played into many of those  stereotypes.

Yet, I’m not ready to give it up. There is a way in which in contemporary media culture, sick and disabled bodies are not sexual bodies. Sick bodies are rarely cast as desirable bodies: rather, they are to be taken care of, they need help, they are infantilized when everyone else knows what is better. Sex is rarely discussed by doctors, though sex conversation runs rampant in young adult cancer circles. There’s an undercurrent, but when have you seen a body so medicalized as bodies are when they have cancer, also take up normative representations of what is sexy? Rarely.

It’s an interesting conversation for me, because sex, gender, and cancer all circulate around the body. As someone who has had breast cancer, my cancer feels like it embodies all of the conversations surrounding gender, image and sex in new ways. I am mostly left with questions, as I rethink this sexy pole-dancer scene. Sure, I might have liked it more if she had some kind of sex desire that was totally non-normative. But would I have even recognized it as sexy? What I can definitely recognize as “sexy” is a girl dancing on a pole, even if I can critique why that particular image is really problematic.

So then, what happens when the infirm body, the chemo-body, the pale body, the cancer-body takes up pole dancing? What about when she owns a secret desire? What about when its arranged for by a young white guy who ends up looking like a hero? Do we all need young, cute, rich white boys to manifest our desires, put us up on stage? Is it his gaze that makes her sexy, his acknowledgement that she looks good, or is it that she actually looks good? Why is he so prominent? I think part of what seems really fascinating here is the relationship between this wish-granting rich white cancer boy friend, and this young angel-like girls’ desire.  There’s something really sticky, really powerful, really concerning, really shocking, really hopeful-  about a girl body with cancer doing a sexy dance in front of her cancer friends.

Lots to think about tonight, about the intersection of sex, cancer, sexuality, dancing bodies, gender, cancer friends, fake breasts, media images and representations…